Shu Uemura: Master strokes

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Shu Uemura transformed the world of cosmetics. And his legacy lives on...

High up on the 52nd floor of the Mori Arts Tower, in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo, members of the world's press are assembled to view the future of make-up. It is 9pm one late-June evening and up here in the sky it's pitch-black. The cityscape is spread out below us, a carpet of silhouetted skyscrapers and twinkling, electric light. On a stage in front of us, three of Shu Uemura's artistic directors are setting out their visions of how cosmetics will evolve. Yuji Asano, Shu Uemura's Atelier International make-up artist, pats a chartreuse-green hue on to a model's eyes, her face ashimmer with Klimt-esque squares of silver and gold. Gina Brooke, Shu's US artistic director, strokes blusher on to a model who has carmine-red prosthetic petal and feather eyelashes protruding from one asymmetric eye. And Kakuyasu Uchiide, the brand's overall international artistic director, painstakingly brushes charcoal-black glitter powder on to another model's eyelids, blocks of multicoloured eyeshadow splaying out from her eyes like a sunrise.

It is now more than six months since the founder of the eponymous beauty brand died, aged 79. The loss of a founder can be devastating for a beauty or fashion house: both Jo Malone and Aveda have struggled to maintain a credible direction since their respective founders, Malone herself and Horst Rechelbacher, have left. But Shu Uemura is looking stronger than ever. The Mori Arts Centre is playing host to a massive Shu Uemura retrospective and it's probably the first time you'll see eyelash curlers on an art-gallery plinth. The company is celebrating 25 years since the opening of its first boutique in Tokyo's Omotesando district and 40 years since the birth of its Pantone spectrum make-up range. Here is a beauty phenomenon that cannot be stopped.

Shu Uemura is like the Comme des Garçons of beauty brands. Not simply because it is Japanese, but because it has blazed a trail of innovation in make-up and skincare and been, like Rei Kawakubo and Comme, consistently way ahead of its time. The story starts in 1928 when Shu Uemura was born. As a child he dreamt of becoming an actor – but the dream was scotched in his late teens when he was bed-ridden with a serious illness. Instead, intrigued by aesthetics, he decided to become a make-up artist. When he enrolled at the Tokyo Beauty Academy, he was the only man in a class of 130. His big break came in 1955 when a make-up artist from the set of Joe Butterfly, a Hollywood movie being shot in Tokyo, came to the make-up school in search of a male assistant. Uemura worked on the film and ended up relocating to Hollywood. It was then that his career as a film and celebrity make-up artist really took off. Uemura found fame working on the 1962 film My Geisha, where he transformed Shirley MacLaine into a geisha; he became close to the actors Edward G Robinson, Lucille Ball and Frank Sinatra in particular – during the shoot of None but the Brave, Sinatra gave him a make-up box for his birthday.

In 1965 he returned to Japan and founded the Shu Uemura Make-up Institute, a Hollywood-style make-up studio and the first of its kind in the country. By 1967 he'd started Japan Make-up Inc, a company importing American beauty products. But it was in 1968 that he finally launched his own Mode make-up, designed to offer a broad range of colour, like an artist's palette, to the public at large. Skincare followed in 1971 and in 1983 he opened his first boutique – one of the first shops in the world to focus just on beauty. Indeed, Japan has a beauty culture that is arguably far more advanced and far different to ours. Japanese women have an average of five products in their skincare ritual – a cleanser, a lotion, an emulsion, an essence and a cream. In some Asian countries women use up to 14 facial unguents. Japanese women generally like products with lighter textures than in the West, and it feels like there are a lot more beauty products on the market there. Shu Uemura has two ranges in Japan, the regular line that's available here and Atelier Made, a skin and make-up brand retailed in hair salons.

By 2000 Shu Uemura, which arrived in the UK in the early Nineties, was one of the biggest, independently owned beauty companies in the world. The rainbow of colour on offer and the futuristic, hi-tech, clear-acrylic packaging was not only beloved of make-up artists, it had paved the way for other cult brands such as MAC, who also sought to offer a very broad spectrum of colour along with modern design. So it was no surprise when L'Oréal formed an alliance with the brand (in 2000) and snapped up a majority stake in the company in 2004. "Shu Uemura was the first make-up brand to do testers of all its products," says the artistic director Kakuyasu Uchiide of its many innovations. "And Shu was the first brand to have so many colours. You become like a painter with many colours in your palette when you use it." Indeed, such is their versatility, Karl Lagerfeld even uses the colours to sketch his fashion drawings.



As the successor to Shu Uemura's throne in designing the twice-yearly mode make-up collections, Uchiide, a handsome, shy man in his early forties is a formidable creative in his own right. He began working for the company 20 years ago and has since honed a conceptual style that fuses art with make-up. Signature looks in his book of work include one with gently diffuse pastel spots of colour around the eye and another with a spectrum of bright technicolour: cerulean blue, mint green, egg yellow and flame orange blended from lash to brow. Not surprisingly, modern art is a great inspiration. And he also likes "sharp and cool" looking women like Charlotte Gainsbourg. "I had such a big shock when Mr Uemura died," he relates of losing his mentor. "He was like a second father to me."

Despite this, the company continues to innovate. They recently launched three limited-edition false eyelashes, quite splendid in their feathery theatricality, designed by Viktor and Rolf. For Christmas 2008, they have a capsule collection designed by the cult Japanese photographer Ninagawa Mika, famous for her use of saturated and heightened colour.

Shu Uemura has retained its links with Hollywood. Gina Brooke, who is also Madonna's make-up artist, joined Shu Uemura in 2005. She'd already collaborated with the company to make customised mink false eyelashes, studded with diamonds, for Madonna in 2004. Not content with having given the pop queen something of a make-under and changing Madonna's make-up look from quite dark, austere and overdone to light, glowing and golden, she now functions as the artistic director of the brand in the States. "I'm inspired by art, colour, food, texture and media," she says. "To find inspiration I go to museums. Abstract Expressionism inspires me and also the work of Monet, Degas and Renoir."

All Shu Uemura's make-up artists follow the mantra of Mr Uemura that "beautiful make-up starts with beautiful skin". He launched his cult cleansing oil back in 1967 and it subsequently became a bestseller in Japan where cleansing with oil, as opposed to the bars, gels and lotions we use in the West, was something of a cultural ritual.

One of his most recent innovations was the use of "Depsea" Water, a mineral-rich liquid sourced from 300m deep in the ocean off the coast of Cape Muroto in southern Japan. And in 2006 the company opened the Utoco spa, near Cape Muroto on the island of Shikoku, to use the Depsea Water in therapeutic treatments.

It is to this Utoco Deep Sea Therapy Centre I find myself heading a number of days after the Mori Arts Centre make-up show. Set on a tranquil stretch of Shikoku's coastline edged with jet black rock, it's a single storey, curvilinear, pristeen-white building with porthole-round windows. Inside, there are 17 clean, white minimal guest rooms – think of a Stanley Kubrick set – and a spa therapy centre arranged around a Depsea Water hydrotherapy pool. The spa treatments are based on thalassotherapy and it's a sparse, no frills sort of establishment – no fluffy towels, plumes of incense smoke or Buddha statues here. Uemura's vision was a holistic one and he viewed skin health as paramount because, of course, as a make-up artist the skin was his canvas. He liked to visit and spend time at this boutique hotel and spa himself. And even in the rainy-season drizzle we encounter, it's a uniquely relaxing and tranquil place.

One comes away from the Utoco spa with a strong sense of the minimalistic aesthetic and futuristic ethos of Shu Uemura. "Mr Uemura taught me that creativity should be based on simplicity," says Uchiide. "He didn't like complicated things." And in this brilliantly avant garde company, it's obvious Uemura's legacy is breathing and living on.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Ampersand Consulting LLP: Server / Infrastructure Engineer (Exchange, Windows, VMware)

    £32000 - £38000 per annum + Bonus and Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Serv...

    Ampersand Consulting LLP: Virtualisation / Cloud Infrastructure Engineer (VMware, Cloud)

    £38000 - £44000 per annum + Bonus and Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Virt...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Android App Developer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises in the...

    Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

    £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

    Day In a Page

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum